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We’ve always had authoritarians among us, but they’ve been given an opening they never had before.
Violent behavior on airplanes has reached such epidemic proportions that the President of Delta Airlines last week asked the Department of Homeland security to allow the airlines to submit passengers who have terrified or otherwise abused flight crews for placement on the government’s no-fly list.
This is a symptom of the much deeper problem: Donald Trump has planted authoritarianism across America like some kind of bizarre Johnny Appleseed, and only his humiliation and conviction will pull it out by the roots.
Eight Republican senators have now come forward to defend the air-crew abusers, as astonishing as that may seem. In doing so, they’re making common cause with thousands of authoritarian followers who’ve adopted Donald Trump as their behavioral role model.
Why would eight GOP senators support abusers on airplanes? Because these senators also view Trump as their own personal role model and believe they draw power, prestige and safety from their association with him. They, like the people abusing flight crews, are authoritarian followers.
This explosion of “air rage” is a symptom of a much larger problem in contemporary America, one we may be on the edge of resolving.
A June, 2021 Morning Consult poll found that about 26 percent of Americans now embrace authoritarian leanings, about twice the proportion found in other democratic nations. The reason, I believe, is that Donald Trump has socially encouraged and authorized their behavior, resulting in a nationwide acceptance and amplification of antisocial activities.
Were it not for Trump, most of these people would have simply taken out their authoritarian tendencies in smaller and often unnoticed ways on their dog, spouse, employees/co-workers or neighbors. Trump’s example elevated them, in their minds, to actors on the national stage so now they’re acting out in a variety of public venues, including on airplanes.
We’ve always had authoritarians among us. These are people who paradoxically love to submit to an authority figure above them while at the same time desperately need to assert their own authority over others “below them” in order to feel safe.
They see the world in binary terms: there are those in control and those who are controlled, those who lead and those who follow, those who dominate and those who are dominated. And when a severe authoritarian leader has significant success in society, authoritarianism becomes, essentially, a contagious mental and cultural illness.
Our airline crews, politicians and teachers now find themselves on the front lines, seeing that illness play out in their own work and lives.
While the vast majority of authoritarians are authoritarian followers, a small percentage are authoritarian leaders. They exist together with their followers in a symbiosis like pilotfish and shark, gang leader and gang, alpha dog and pack.
When authoritarian leaders emerge and are celebrated in the broader society authoritarian followers are drawn to them, realigning their worldview, value system, and behavior to mirror those of the authoritarian leader.
Authoritarian followers submit to control by their chosen leader because it makes them feel like they’re drawing power (and, thus, authority) from that person.
They’re often drawn to hierarchical and violent professions where they can both submit to their own leaders while also routinely assert their own authority over those they view as beneath them. Thus authoritarians are over-represented in professions like policing, while only rarely seen among similarly public-service jobs like becoming firefighters.
In their personal lives, authoritarian followers are constantly on the lookout for people they can assert their own power over, particularly people they think should either serve them (like a restaurant server or flight attendant) or should simply defer to them because they think they have higher social status (whites going off on people of color, tyrannical bosses, husbands beating their wives and/or children).
Authoritarian follower Michael Cohen described his relationship with Donald Trump in stark terms. “He’s very much like a cult leader,” Cohen told Joy Reid, adding, “When you’re in his good grace, you believe that you have this enormous amount of power…”
Authoritarian followers crave that feeling of power, often seizing it by acting out violently as so many do daily on airliners, in Uber cars, and at school board meetings.
In a society where more than half of all families would be devastated by an unexpected $1000 expense, where a single illness can force a family into homelessness, a justified and all-pervasive feeling of powerlessness is rampant.
Forty years of Reagan’s neoliberalism have gutted the American middle class; while around two-thirds of us were middle class when Reagan came to power in 1981, today that number is well below half of us, a milestone noted by NPR in 2015 in an article titled The Tipping Point: Most Americans No Longer Are Middle Class.
The loss of economic security translates into a loss in social status and economic power; when fifteen percent of 330 million people experience an economic and social loss like that, about 50 million people become far more vulnerable to authoritarian leaders who glibly tell them that petty authority figures like flight attendants, election workers and unionized teachers are the ones really responsible for their fate.
Authoritarianism, like its sibling of violent physical abuse, tends to run in families. The abuse of flight attendants is simply a symptom of a larger cancer within our society: the elevation of an authoritarian leader to the presidency, becoming the father figure of our national family.
Trump is now facing accountability for exploiting the power he had as an authoritarian leader, both in his business, his family and our nation.
Like all authoritarian leaders, he’s not handling it well. Hitler, for example, committed suicide rather than submit to the Allied authorities.
Mussolini being shot and then hanged upside down shows the most extreme fate of authoritarian leaders who lose their power and thus their authority over their followers. Most will, therefore, use every last lever they have to escape the loss of the status, prestige or actual legal power that lets them hold their followers in thrall.
As Trump’s various crimes and grifts are exposed, he is right now fading in status and prestige. That translates directly into a loss in power, as we’re seeing with Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell and a handful of other Republicans feeling safe enough to openly rebuke him.
As his power fades, so will his grip over all but the most fanatical of his followers. If history is any guide, that will translate into a drop in air rage incidents, murders, spousal abuse and trashing of public servants like teachers and election workers.
That 2021 Morning Consult study mentioned earlier found that 25.6 percent of Americans now score high on tests that tease out highly authoritarian worldviews and behaviors. But this isn’t a reflection of humanity at large.
The same study found that authoritarianism at its most virulent levels ran only 13.4% in Canada, 12.9% in Italy and Australia, 10.7% in France, 10.4% in the UK, 9.2% in Spain and a mere 6.7% in Germany, the country with the deepest and most personal living memory of the damage an authoritarian leader can do to a nation.
The bad news, as the old saying goes, is that America is experiencing an authoritarian moment, and that’s a brutal experience for any society (for the most extreme example of how this plays out, look at countries once dominated by ISIS).
The good news is that when Trump and his immediate circle are finally held to account and stripped of their status, prestige and power the authoritarian movement in America will similarly lose much of its reach and power.
The testosterone-like fuel of affiliation with Trump will no longer drive air rage and all the other symptoms of a society that’s been, like Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1930s, temporarily dominated by an authoritarian leader.
It seems bleak at the moment, with authoritarian followers forming armed militias, stalking and harassing people both online and on airplanes, and trying to seize local positions of power on school boards and elections commissions, all while authoritarian followers already in positions of power use the authority they now have to thwart good-faith efforts to return America to normal.
But this season of madness—if Garland, James and others in a position to hold Trump to account succeed at doing their jobs—will pass. Then begins the real work of rebuilding our republic and fortifying it against the next authoritarian leader aspiring to the highest office in the land.
This article was first published on The Hartmann Report and licensed under Creative Commons.
Thom Hartmann is the author of “The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream” (2020); “The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America” (2019); and more than 25 other books in print.